Jason Dannelly Selects Winners of the First Round of the NAIA Football Championship Series

10339739_1703721843187182_1827114446610379474_nWe’ve been on the “road” for so many years that its odd for me to envision a “race” to the NAIA National Championship. Especially given the driving conditions I had cross country the last few years getting to Rome. Although two buses stranded on I-75 in Georgia and the stories from all those involved is still one of my favorite memories from 2010.

But this year the NAIA will embark on the first of three title games in Daytona Beach aptly title the “Race to Daytona.” Previous incarnations of the game saw us on the “Road to Savannah” and the “Road to Rome.” The racing moniker fits the host and also the attitude of several of the NAIA’s best who are definitely in the fast lane towards the NAIA title game. (See what I did there?)

It’s so tough for me to pick any major upsets in the first round of the NAIA Football Championship Series in any given year. Typically if you select the chalk, you are bound to get five or six of the eight games correct. Last year the only upset was Tabor defeating Benedictine in the first round (11 over an 8). In 2012 there were two upsets, same with 2011.

But that’s not to say the NAIA postseason doesn’t go without it’s occasional craziness. In 1998, five underdogs garnered victories in the NAIA’s opening round of the championship series seeing the No. 1, No. 2, No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 teams in the county knocked off in game one of the postseason. This led to a national championship game where the No. 8 Azusa Pacific Cougars won their first national championship game over the No. 11 Olivet Nazarene Tigers. Continue reading

Jason Dannelly Predicts the 2014 NAIA Football Championship Series Qualifiers

Dustin Rinker

Carroll College RB Dustin Rinker. (Helena IR Photo)

Every year this moment in the season comes and every year it’s like my version of X-Mas. There’s nothing better in my world than seeing 16 NAIA football teams advance to the postseason and letting the craziness begin.

This year, the craziness might have started a week earlier than usual. Morningside, Southern Oregon and Georgetown College both all on the final day of the NAIA football regular season changing the perspective of the NAIA postseason immensely. That’s three of the NAIA’s top five teams falling, making the new No. 1 team in the NAIA Carroll College

Being rated in the Top 2 and Top 4 are probably the two biggest factors in making the NAIA Championship Game. Top 2 (as long as you put in the bids) guarantees you home field advantage through the semis. Top 4 obviously gives you the same advantage until the semifinals which many will argue is the most important. Given the Thanksgiving holiday, no one wants to be on the road that weekend and traditionally the home teams have had a much higher rate of success than the road teams during the Turkey Day weekend.

Before predicting anything we have to know the facts. Who won, who lost and who is a conference champion. Remember, all conference champions rated No. 20 or higher earn an automatic berth. Continue reading

Jason Dannelly: A Look at the Final Week of the NAIA Football Regular Season

10339739_1703721843187182_1827114446610379474_nEarlier this week I had intentions to write a conference by conference breakdown of who is in and who is out of the NAIA Football Championship Series. But as life would have it this week has been much busier than normal. Something about a trip to Minnesota, a snow storm and another job kind of got in the way.However, the NAIA wrote a great breakdown of the final week of the regular season. You can read that article here.

The number one thing everyone needs to remember is this: Conference champions rated #20 or better get automatic berths to the postseason. If you are a conference champ and rated #23 in the final poll, you are out of luck. If you are conference co-champs and you are rated #21 and the other team is #15, you are on the outside looking in.

The magic number to remember is 20.

So who am I talking about specifically? Langston, Reinhardt, Saint Francis (Ind.) and Webber International. All of these teams can either win or have part of a conference title by winning this weekend. However, they will all need the help of a lot of other people outside of their control if they are going to make it to the postseason. Continue reading

Jason Dannelly: Two Weeks Left Until the NAIA Football Regular Season Ends

Brandon Wegher of Morningside

Brandon Wegher of Morningside

My first year covering the NAIA as a true national journalist was 2002. I knew the teams and the conferences, kinda. And I knew who was good, sorta. But when this time of year came around I found myself scrambling to try to figure out what the heck was going on in each conference. I made bold predictions that made me look like an idiot and I guaranteed outcomes that I had no business commenting on.

12 years later . . . not much has changed!

The NAIA postseason is taking shape. If you want to be a part of it, don’t have three losses. It’s been nearly impossible through the years to make the postseason with three losses, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen.

Where we see the exception is typically in conferences where teams are forced to play a lot of games outside of their league schedule. The Central States Football League is the most notable in this department and unless Langston wins out they will be left without a postseason rep once again. The Lions are 5-3 and finish up against Bacone and SAGU, the next best teams in the league over the next two weeks. Continue reading

Jason Dannelly: NAIA Football Review/Preview for Monday, September 8th.

Photo Courtesy of SOU Sports Information

Photo Courtesy of SOU Sports Information

Breath.

Just inhale . . .follow with an exhale.

It’s going to be okay.

The college football season is officially fully underway and from looking at the NAIA twittersphere one would think the season is over for some of these teams. Sure there were some pretty good upsets this weekend but overall it shouldn’t change your opinion on many of these teams quite yet.

Unless the injury bug bit your team hard this weekend because the name of the game in the NAIA is depth. Teams that have depth can survive a few bumps and bruises while teams that lack it will really struggle this year.

Early last week I said the game of the week was going to be Carroll College at Southern Oregon. The NAIA national office also officially gave the game that title and the Raiders and Saints did not disappoint. SOU defeated Carroll 38-35 as quarterback Austin Dodge found Victor Dean from 22 yards out with just seven seconds left to play in the game. The TD capped off a seven play, 80-yard drive that took just 1:23 to execute.

Dodge was impressive going 21-30 on the day for 281 yards passing, two touchdowns and no interceptions but equally as impressive was Raider running back Melvin Mason who rushed 27 times for 202 yards and three touchdowns. Mason’s performance was easily the grittiest we have seen from a running back in a big NAIA game for quite a while. Continue reading

157 Moments that Shaped My NAIA Experience

My first experience with the NAIA came in 1996 when I went to watch my brother play college football at Dana College. He redshirted his first year, so I didn’t actually get to see him play that fall but my Dad and I went to a bunch of the games anyway just so we could get a chance to watch his team play.

Two year’s later I joined him and started playing college football at the NAIA level. I’m not trying to romanticize what my time associated with the NAIA has been because there have been as many downs for me as there has been ups. Like anything in life, you learn from the downs and probably remember the ups for a little bit more than they actually were.

Even though I started watching my brother in 1996, I probably didn’t really know what the NAIA was until 1999 or 2000. That’s when I got started working more college media events and was traveling as the radio voice of Dana College and Midland Lutheran College women’s basketball (now Midland University)

Despite stepping away from the day-to-day duties of the Victory Sports Network a few years ago it seems like I will always be associated with VSN and the NAIA. I’ve written, broadcast and covered professional sports, NCAA sports and high schools sports but regardless of all of that people always ask me about the NAIA.

That’s both good and bad. It’s nice to be considered the person who is the “beat writer” for NAIA athletics because information flows your way more frequently than it would say if you were just a college sports writer. But in the same respect, any article I write on any other subject is discounted because I’m “that NAIA writer.”

I hated that people feel that way about the NAIA because of the truly magnificent things that are accomplished at this level of athletics. And before the haters come out of the wood work to say “well DII and DIII do the blah blah blah same” I want to assure you that I am not discounting any of the efforts that take place at those levels. All I’m saying is when you have the blue oval and those four white letters behind you, you are already ahead of your fellow small college counterparts in the NAIA. If you don’t believe me, ask the enrollment driven schools of DII and DIII to remove all mention of their collegiate affiliation from their marketing materials and their coaches recruiting pitches for one year and see how it affects recruitment.

I’ve personally heard coaches say to recruits “well, we’re NCAA DII now… “ and talk down about members in the NAIA. Meanwhile they walk these recruits past trophy cases filled with NAIA hardware.

My experience the NAIA has been a wild ride. I never set out to start a web site that would become a national leader in NAIA news and opinions. All I wanted to do was have a message board where people could come and talk about NAIA football. I literally started the site because I wasn’t able to take the day after the fourth of July off in 2002 and I went into work at an office where I was the only person around. So I jumped on that crappy office Compaq computer and started a message board.

I started thinking about the start of VSN lately and all of the things that I have seen happen. I’ve never really sat down and shared those moments with people because I thought I was too busy and didn’t have the time. Sure, some of these moments are a lot more special to me than they are the NAIA, its members or people within the division. The point is that everyone has a list of great memories at this level and I think if they actually sat down and wrote them out they would understand how very special the NAIA level is and that people should never write off the experience just because it happens to take place at a level of college athletics that isn’t the NCAA.

1. Meeting fans that are truly passionate about the NAIA. It’s rare you meet people that have knowledge of NAIA athletics, so when you do it’s like Christmas. Especially when it is in a random place and they happen to be wearing a t-shirt from some obscure college that you happen to be the only person in the room to know.

2. That moment you look out of the University of Sioux Falls charter plane to Helena, Mont. and see what looks like a sidewalk cleared for you to land on.

3. Freddy T’s during the old NAIA Championship Site in Savannah, Tenn.

4. Old Havana Cigar Bar in Rome, Ga.

5. Pounds upon pounds of crab legs and oysters at Jefferson’s in Rome, Ga.

6. Joe Barker and the patented “MOVE those chains” when the NAIA football championship was in Savannah.

7. The 6th Floor of the Pickwick Inn and trading stories with David Long after the Banquet.

8. Being able to call some of the best athletic directors in the country your friend.

9. Going out for a night on the town in Helena, Mont with fans and alumni.

10. The Marysville House outside of Helena with the world’s simplest and best menu: Steak, Seafood, Chicken, Pork.

11. Before KC Power and Lights, meeting all the NAIA DI MBB Coaches at Tanners or the Quaaf.

12. The occasional jar of Apple Pie from a coaching staff in Kentucky.

13. Seeing schools for the first time in 2002 and seeing how much they have built or improved in the last 12 years.

14. Watching football programs be built and overnight become national powers.

15. Having Andy Lambert (Sterling College) coach one of your teams in the VSN Senior Classic and realizing what a truly special coach he is.

16. The first time you hear the high school bands in Municipal Auditorium in KC.

17. The Georgetown College band at the NAIA DI MBB tournament.

18. Enjoying a late night pie run to Perkins with assistant football coaches the night before a football game.

19. The day I met Matt Zimmer, the football beat writer for former NAIA member University of Sioux Falls. I haven’t met another writer who was as gifted, funny and fearless as Zim. He has a writing style that should have him writing nationally and as well as for the Argus Leader.

20. Being able to have a personal relationship with Bruce Brown when he was the NAIA’s Champions of Character presenter. If parents, coaches and athletes enacted to 10 percent of Bruce’s message, athletics in general would be completely different. Don’t believe me? Check out proactivecoaching.info

21. Walking into the NAIA’s old Olathe headquarters and listening to the manufacturing of Honeywell products.

22. Having former Saint Francis (Ind.) QB Eric Hooks help me calm the victims of a car accident that happened right outside the hotel for our VSN Senior Game.

23. Meeting Kevin Donley of Saint Francis (Ind.) and feeling like you were instantly accepted into his family.

24. Running into NAIA coaches at a White Castle in Louisville, Ky. during football coaches’ convention and pounding down greasy sliders with them.

25. Having the opportunity to hire my staff when College Fanz bought VSN and developing some of the best friendships of my life with those co-workers.

26. Having one of those coworkers bust into your hotel room the night before a broadcast, jump on your bed and slap you across the face because you decided to go home early.

27. Seeing the Shiloh Civil War Memorial and getting a guided tour of the grounds.

28.  Ruining a pair of new Nike shoes because you were shooting photos at what is now known as “The Mud Bowl.”

29. Being able to brag (to no one at all) that you were at every game of the NAIA basketball tournament from Wednesday morning through Saturday night.

30. Meeting a broadcaster who thought he could announce every one of those games and watching him go down in flames four games in.

31. Going on a spring football tour and meeting former Paul Quinn head coach Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley and even though I spoke to him on the phone several times, including the day before I arrived, he had no idea who I was or why I was there.

32. Being able to get the cell phone number of hundreds of coaches and having them actually pick up when you call. (My friends hit “ignore”)

33. Driving up to a school to broadcast a game and having the entire crew say “so, where are we broadcasting from?”

34. The Cozy Inn in Salina, Kan.

35. The bathroom experience in McPherson, Kan. where there might have been a bomb exploded due to point No. 34 of this list.

36. Having to swat and kill a bat that was flying in my room in the “President’s House” at Geneva College. Then realizing my life had become Chris Farley’s from “Black Sheep”.

37. Meeting Frosty Westering before he passed away and having multiple phone conversations with him.

38. Having an autographed copy of “Make the Big Time Where You Are” with a personal note from Frosty.

39. Meeting so many people whose lives were touched by Frosty.

40. Meeting a person who was an NAIA staffer and not getting off on the right foot only to turn into great friends years later.

41. Meeting NAIA staff you still consider to be friends regardless of your differences.

42. Effie Burgers in Lewiston, Idaho.

43. Randomly meeting Greg Beachner on the sidelines of Sioux Falls football games and eventually hiring his extremely talented son to work for VSN.

44. Meeting an MidAmerica Nazarene graduate on the VSN message boards and eventually hiring him as the business’s CPA.

45. Being able to attend the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho and realize what a truly special event it is.

46. Ed Cheff. Enough said.

47. Watching your alma mater win a national championship in wrestling.

48. Watching a member of that national championship team become a world champion in the UFC.

49. Knowing the first members of the NAIAFootball.net message board personally.

50. Becoming great friends with some of those members.

51. Broadcasting a football game with one of those members.

52. Taking photos with the College Fanz Crew with our “fans” at a McDonalds in Missouri Valley…extremely hungover.

53. Meeting and having a conversation with Jim Spivey, an NAIA basketball legend.

54. Hearing Ray Harper from Oklahoma City University tell the story of how he got hired to the person that hired him and not remember the last time you laughed that hard.

55. Meeting the guy that hired him, Jim Abbott, and realizing how truly great he is at his job.

56. Meeting the people that started the DII and DIII web sites.

57. Being able to shut up and listen when you sit down at a table of some of the best minds in small college athletics.

58. Watching the TV show “Justified” and know the towns they are talking about because you’ve been to Williamsburg, Corbin and Barbourville.

59. Standing on the sideline when Saint Xavier University won the NAIA football championship and seeing Mike Feminis jump into his assistant coaches’ arms.

60. Putting a microphone on Gary Wagner of Carroll College and listening to his every word.

61. Watching coaches start in the NAIA and move up into prominent jobs in DI.

62. Broadcasting NAIA DI basketball games with coaches who have just been eliminated.

63. Watching those coaches come into their own behind the mic and eventually turn into sports talk show hosts.

64. Watching a SportsCenter Top 10 and seeing a highlight and instantly knowing its an NAIA team.

65. Texting the coach of the NAIA team on SportsCenter to give them a bad time about it.

66. The great “Ice Storm” that left Sioux Falls and Carroll College stuck on the interstate in Georgia and the tweets and text messages that followed.

67. Fan meet ups at random.

68. Actually driving on the “Highway 20” that the Zac Brown Band sang about while going to Rome.

69. Randomly meeting Nicole Chin on the sideline of one of the NAIA’s postseason playoff games and eventually hiring her as the graphic artist and designer that made the NAIA Preview magazine look great.

70. Some of the longest car drives across the country to places normal people have never heard of.

71. Playing $2 blackjack with oil field workers in the hotel lobby of a random hotel in Minot, N.D. the night before a broadcast.

72. Having one of the largest human beings I’ve ever been around walk up to me in a bar and scare the living hell out of me saying, “So…I’m only a second team All-American?” before laughing and introducing themselves.

73. Being publicly scolded at a Hall of Fame induction by Bob Petrino Sr. because the NAIA “screwed” his 1983 team out of a postseason… . even though I never worked for the NAIA and was born in 1980.

74. Having a fan accuse you of being bias toward Saint Francis (Ind.) because “you are related to their coaches.” (Note, my name is spelled Dannelly and their name is spelled Donley)

75.  Finding a used condom in the broadcast booth of a school that will remain nameless.

76. Thinking you will have hundreds of fans show up to your pregame show broadcast only to get a few random people wandering in and out of the picture.

77. Having a dance party on I-80 outside of Chicago because traffic was at a complete stop.

78. Being disappointed every time a great NAIA coach gets passed over for a job at a higher level.

79. Being able to say I never fell from or had to get a tetanus shot from the old press box at MidAmerica Nazarene.

80. Having a hard drive full of bloopers from our broadcasts and random instant replays that were kept.

81. Deciding that after an initial 28 hour drive to California, a game broadcast and a postseason announcement broadcast that a four hour stopover in Las Vegas on the way home was a good idea.

82. Brandi Benson’s scarf.

83. Ripping the seat out of my pants while changing a tire on a trip back from San Antonio.

84. Never being able to look at a Dodge Sprinter van the same ever again.

Before you point out there are not 157 bullet points to this list know that it will be continued and added to randomly. After the initial list is published I’m sure I’ll have friends and coworkers say “hey, remember that time…”

This isn’t meant to be a “look at me list” rather it’s a list of things that I hope will allow others to pause for a moment and realize what a truly special place the NAIA is and how it has shaped so many lives as athletes, coaches and administrators.

I’ll be the first to say the NAIA is far from perfect. Hell, nothing is perfect and if anything I’m a prime example of imperfection. But what the NAIA can be is the perfect place at the perfect time for college athletics. With all the changes happening in the NCAA, the NAIA provides the niche that more teams in DII and DIII should gravitate towards.

Somewhere along the way, everyone loses their way. The NCAA is at a crossroads because the majority of their members are a lot closer to looking like NAIA members than looking like the DI members that are driving the bus.

The NAIA, now more than every, needs to clearly define, promote and build upon the void they can fill in collegiate athletics. College athletics should be about the experience of the student athlete and providing them with every opportunity to have a great experience.

That needs to be the central focus of everything the NAIA does going forward. Not chip and dip sponsorships, not telling everyone why the NAIA is great and definitely not new legislation that makes the organization look more and more like the NCAA.

The athletes in the NAIA are truly special and someday some of them will sit down and write out a long list of why their experience at whatever NAIA College they went to was great. Let’s just make sure when they do step away they can say that the NAIA experience truly helped to shape their lives.

Jason Dannelly’s Preview of the 2013 NAIA Football National Championship Game

When the clock strikes zero on Saturday night in Rome, Ga. at Barron Stadium the curtain will fall on the small Georgia community’s hold as the host of the NAIA Football National Championship as well as the hopes and dreams of one of the two teams seeking their first ever national championship in NAIA football.

This year’s game will mark the 10th consecutive NAIA football championship that I have attended and the twelfth in a row that I have seen live (I watched the 2002 and 2003 broadcasts at home on television. Remember the “Empire Sports Network” anyone?). Somewhere packed away in storage are the VHS copies of those games. Yes, VHS but I digress.

While the City of Rome has been home to a great historical tradition of college football, neither of the two programs in this year’s title game can stake the same claim. After all, the City of Rome is home to “the mother who saved college football” when congress was looking to ban the sport nearly 100 years ago. It was the mother of a deceased teenage football player who stepped up and voiced that it would be her son’s desire that the sport continue to be played. If you do not believe the story, just pay a visit to Jefferson’s on Broad Street in Rome this weekend as the historical plaques are in displayed on the street corner. The City of Rome is certainly a football town and that aura will be missed next year when the game moves to Daytona Beach.

The same passion and desire burns in the bellies of the athletes from the University of the Cumberlands and Grand View University has they head into their first ever trips to the NAIA Footbal National Championship.

Cumberlands and Grand View only have 35 years of football tradition combined between their programs. To put that into perspective, realize that Grand View Coach Mike Woodley has spent more time on the gridiron at 39 years as a coach than the total history of these two teams. In fact, Grand View’s trip ties last year’s national champion Marian University for the fastest trip to the national title after a program’s inception at six years. In an effort to expand their athletic department, Cumberlands began their program in 1985, which is still considered a relatively young college football program.

This is also marks the first time in back to back years that none of the teams in the game have a national title in their trophy case since 1972-73. In those years, the NAIA had two divisions of college football (DI/DII) and East Texas State, Missouri Southern, Abilene Christian (Texas) and Northwestern (Iowa) all picked up their first national titles in those years.

The newness of the national championship is where the resemblance of these programs ends. There are few similarities in how these teams attack opponents on offensive. Grand View has been very balanced with their running game while focusing on two very solid wide receivers as their main targets of the passing game. Cumberlands plans to run the ball and then run the ball some more. Their 359 yards per game on the ground is the most in the NAIA since William Penn in 2010. Both teams are solid defensively with Cumberlands adopting more of a bend don’t break mentality while Grand View has been know to demoralize opponents who try to run the football on their vaunted defense.

The Coaches:
The NAIA is loaded with great coaches who have flown under the radar as they have built their programs into national contenders and this year is no different with Grand View’s Mike Woodley and Cumberlands’ John Bland. Both coaches were assigned the task of getting their teams to an NAIA national title game and both have done it in a fairly quick fashion. Bland lands in the title game in just his eighth season at UC while Woodley has made it to the chipper in just his sixth season. Both coaches are eerily similar too, spending time in the Houston area, Bland at Rice University and Woodley at Sam Rayburn High School, and in NCAA DI football with Woodley at Iowa State.

One thing you have to earn to be on the coaching staff of either team is trust. Both Bland and Woodley employ many assistants who have been with them since they began their tenure at their respective schools.

Quotes from the Coaches
Last week I had an opportunity to talk with both coaches and get their thoughts on the National Championship game and how they have been able to make it to Rome, Ga.

Coach Mike Woodley of Grand View University Quotes:

On the quick build of the program:
“We have a great administrative team that supports us, from the President to the Athletic Director to the financial aid director. They’ve supported us and given us everything within reason we need to be successful on and off the field. They committed to improving our facilities and allowed us to get out and recruit athletes that can help us win.”

On the play of quarterback Derek Fulton:
“When he started as a freshman last year we knew we had a pretty good one. With his improvement this year he’s really emerged as a leader.”

On wide receiver Brady Roland:
“We feel like we have the best wide receiver in the nation with him. He’s a tremendous athlete and can catch and run better than anyone in the nation.”

On Jason Gladfelder’s play this season and leadership:
“We feel like he’s the best linebacker in the country. He’s our marquee guy. But what he brings to the table is that effort everyday in the offseason in the weight room and on the practice field. He’s a student of the game and always seems to be getting to the football and staying on his teammates.”

On the Vikings All Conference honors:
“The coaches in our league really gave our defense credit this year and that was indicated by our all conference selections. Three of our defensive backs were first team all-conference and that’s almost unheard of in our league.”

On the play of Cumberlands:
“Two of the teams we played later in the season were very similar to Cumberlands. Anytime you play one of those option teams its to your advantage to have a little more time to prepare. They are a cross between option football and the Wing-T with some misdirection and jet sweep.”

On Cumberlands’ offensive athletes:
“They have some fellas that can go. They’ve got a lot of speed and several guys that can house it. We have some speed in our defensive backfield who can keep up, but they are dangerous. I’d be lying if I said we were going go in and shut these guys down, because they are good.”

On Cumberlands’ ability to throw the football:
“They’ve got a good idea on how to throw the football in this offense. A lot of those option teams really struggle to throw the football but these guys have gotten it figured out. They throw the ball a lot better than they get credit for.”

On the focus of this team:
“This team has been unbelievable in terms of having their heads on straight. After seeing Saint Xavier win it and Marian win it, our guys knew we weren’t too far away from something pretty special. Our guys have responded and stayed focus.”

Coach John Bland of the University of the Cumberlands Quotes:
On the injury of Terrance Cobb early in the season and how it changed the offense:
“With Terrance going down, he was such a big part of our offense because we thought he could go the distance every time he touched the ball. But with the progress of Adam Craig being a quarterback, he can run the football and gives us another great option in the backfield. Now defenses just couldn’t key in on one of our runningbacks and they have to account for Adam which helped our offense tremendously as the weeks went on.”

On the play of the offensive line:
“Our offensive line they have always paved the way and that’s been a pleasant surprise again this year. We lost some seniors last year and now we turn around and we have guys that have really stepped up and into roles this season.  They’ve done a great job this year and we’ve been fortunate this year to stay healthy and have a very smart group playing for us”

On wide receiver Willie Gibson:
“He’s got tremendous speed and can get behind you and go the distance. Because our running game has been so strong, we’ve been able to get one on one coverage for Gibson on the outside and allowed him to be successful.”

On the defensive line:
“I feel like we have a great group that starts with Nick Smith upfront. I feel like if we faced him, he’d be the best defensive linemen we would face all year.”

On the play of the defensive backs:
“Our secondary has made plays this year. When we got to the playoffs and started facing off with these teams that have these high powered offenses we really elevated our game and stepped up even more.”

On how the offensive backfield have come together:
“Our backs are an unselfish group. They really have the mentality of an offensive line. Sometimes they might have to be the one blocking all game and then the next week they are the one getting the carries. They’ve just been so unselfish this year and they’re never expecting to be the one who gets the ball every time.”

On making it to the national championship:
“I told our team this is a dream come true but when you think about it, it isn’t a dream, this is reality. These are the dreams, hopes and goals that we shoot for every year and this year it is finally happening for our program.”

On the team’s confidence:
“The confidence that this team has is the type that I have seen in other teams when they are playing in the national championship.  I’ve see those teams as a coach and as a game committeeman and feel like that’s the type of confidence we have now.”

On Grand View’s defense:
“I think have a very good defensive because they are very aggressive. They get their linebackers and safeties involved in the run game and they are getting down there and attacking. They are very good at making tackles and are very physical. They are well coached. You can tell because they just don’t give up big plays.”

On Grand View’s offense:
“They have a balanced attack and we are going to have to defend them very well if we are going to stop them. We have to continue to not give up the big plays. We have to play solid defense and must continue to tackle well when we get to the ball.”

The Team Comparison
There is no doubt the success of both teams offenses run through their signal callers. Alan Craig has burst onto the scene at Cumberlands to lead his team in rushing, passing and scoring while Grand View’s Derek Fulton leads his squad in rushing and in passing. I’m still researching this stat but this is the first time since at least 2000 that the leading rushers and passers for both teams coming into the game were quarterbacks (My thoughts are that it could be Georgetown – Eddie Eviston and NW Oklahoma State – Al Hunt, but Eviston might not have been the leading rusher, making it an even rarer occurrence).

Fulton is not a quarterback that will wow you with an NFL arm or break the ankles of opponents while running the football. He’s a leader, an extension of the offensive coordinator on the field.  Fulton makes good decisions and in his two years as a starter very seldom gets rattled.

Craig enters his first year as a starter for UC replacing four-year UC starter Jay Bright. This season Craig has accounted for 37 total touchdowns for the Patriots while rushing for more than 100 yards four times this season. While UC may not appear to throw the ball much, Craig still makes good decisions when he has to chuck it, accumulating 13 touchdowns passing and just six interceptions

Cumberlands probably has the better No. 2 option to run the football in running back D’Angelo Jordan who has rushed for 1130 yards this season but don’t sleep on the team of running backs that the Vikings will put on the field. The Vikings have four workhorses with over 50 carries each this season led by Mike Perez with 111 carries and 485 yards. Additionally, backup quarterback Dorian Ballentine will come off the bench to be a running threat for the Vikings in what most people would classify as a Wildcat set.

The Vikings have the edge in terms of wide receivers in this game as Brady Roland and Taylor Goebel have found the end zone for 21 touchdowns this season. Roland’s 1220 yards receiving this season has made him one of the NAIA’s top targets and offensive threats. For Cumberlands, their go-to-guy is Willie Gibson, an athlete who will be seen all over the field. This season Gibson has led the Patriots with 638 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver but has also posed a threat as Cumberlands’ main kick and punt returner. Gibson is the type of athlete that Grand View’s defense will have to account for on every play. While his numbers do not reflect that of an NAIA All-American, defenses must respect him like he is one.

Ryan Northcutt and Shane Turnipseed lead Cumberlands’ offensive line with help from Jonathan Morrell and Tor Peterson who garnered all conference honors this season. Grand View saw Marc Osborn, Presley Godson and Tyler Ahrens be named all conference this season with Osborn bringing home the NAIA division’s Rimington Award for the nation’s top center. Ahrens, a member of last year’s JUCO national championship team at Iowa Western has not lost a game in the last two seasons.

On defense the Vikings are led by senior Jason Gladfelder at linebacker, who is a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award an award for the best small college linebackers.  Dudley Bickham also helps to anchor one of the NAIA’s top rushing defenses from the linebacker spot along with Adam Wenck. Cumberlands Weston Hazelhurst leads the UC linebacker core after being honored as a first team all conference selection along with Jeremy Gardner who ranks second on the team in tackles.

First team all Mid South Conference selection Nick Smith along with Carson Newman who contributed 16.5 tackles for loss this season anchors Cumberlands’ defensive line. Grand View’s main stays upfront are Cody Redmond and Blake Goodenbour who tallied 26.5 tackles for loss this season.

Grand View defensive backs might be the deepest part of the Vikings team in terms of talent. This fall five of the Vikings defensive backs were named all conference by the MSFA including first teamers Kevin Gilkey, Joe Musselman and Kenny Jones with Lance Lewis and Zach Hollier also picking up honors. The Patriots’ Reggie Murray and Adrian Hightower were named all conference this season in the MSC. Hightower leads the team in interceptions with five while Murray is one of the teams leading tacklers with 43.

Both teams are solid in terms of special teams. They have returners who can get loose and score touchdowns and specialists that typically do not make mistakes. If the game comes down to a field goal the one stat to remember is that neither team has made a field goal longer than 36 yards this season.

Predictions for the National Championship Game
The great thing about how the NAIA championship game is set up is the way the timing of the event plays out. The Sunday and Monday after the semifinals are a blur for everyone involved. The players are letting it soak in that they have accomplished this major milestone, the administration is trying to figure out how the whole event works and parents are frantically making phone calls to figure out how they will get to Georgia to see their sons play.

Thankfully the teams have two full weeks to prepare and get healthy for the title game so that by the time the teams officially setting into Rome on Wednesday, things are not quite such a blur. Even with both teams being completely new to the situation, they will still be very prepared for what the other team has to offer.

The toughest part of this match up is Cumberlands offense. Very few teams in the NAIA run the ball like the Patriots do. All season long, Cumberlands has been the toughest matchup for everyone on their schedule because facing a veer/option look is completely different than what most teams run from week to week.

Grand View is going to be able to counter the offense of the Patriots with the experience they have gained this season against two of the NAIA’s top rushing teams, Tabor and William Penn. It’s even more advantageous for the Vikings that both of these teams came within the last few weeks on the schedule.

While UC posses the NAIA’s top rushing attack, Grand View’s defense has also proven they can shut down the run this season. In the Vikings’ games against Tabor and William Penn they only allowed 109 yards and 212 yards respectively, 203 yards and 62 yards below their season averages.

If Cumberlands wants a chance to win the national title, they will have to keep Grand View on their heels with an effective passing game much like they did in the semifinals against Carroll College.

Grand View has a very balanced offense that must take care of the football if they are going to beat Cumberlands. If the Vikings turn the ball over UC has the type of game plan that will just grind away on the defense of Grand View. Part of the reason why William Penn was able to stick within eight points of Grand View was the fact that GV gave up the ball twice on fumbles. But as luck would have it, Grand View also capitalized on a William Penn interception as Lance Lewis took an interception to the house for the first touchdown of the ball game.

Both teams are fairly solid in terms of taking care of the ball as Cumberlands is +11 in turnover margin on the season while Grand View is +8. If Grand View takes care of business with the football, they will have the advantage on offense.

The one fact that is hard to stat is how these teams have been tested this season. Cumberland has been in close games and won by seven points or less this season four times while Grand View won by five and three points to start the season and weren’t tested again late until William Penn. Given UC’s ability to come back and overcome deficits this season it would be tough to pick against the Patriots in a tight game.

Athlete for athlete, these two teams are nearly dead even. Both teams posses athletic, mobile offensive lines and quick agile defensive lines like we have come to expect from the NAIA’s best teams. The one contributing factor that neither team can control for Saturday is the weather. Several of the NAIA championship games in recent years have seen rain on game day and if this year’s contest is played in a downpour one would have to believe the advantage in the game goes the rushing offense of the Cumberlands.

Predictions for the National Title
There is no doubt arguments can be made as to why either Grand View or Cumberlands will win the national championship. Each team has advantages in several key categories and it will all depend on what weaknesses get exploited and what strengths are diminished.

The distinct advantage in this game is the rushing defense of Grand View University. With the way Cumberlands wants to run the ball, the Patriots will have the rather auspicious task of trying to figure out which way the Vikings are coming at them. Grand View’s defense literally comes at you from every angle, which will give Cumberlands running game fits in the championship game. If Cumberlands is able to run the ball on Grand View, watch out. The final score for this game could be in the 40’s with the last team to touch the ball winning the game.

There is no doubt that Cumberlands also has a great defense and will have a solid game plan for how to shut down the Vikings. However, the Patriots have giving up a lot of points to good teams this year and Grand View has the type of defense that will slow down the Patriot offense and not allow this game to become a shootout.

In the end, it is going to be Grand View’s defense slowing down the UC running game for the difference in Rome, Ga. The Vikings have proven week after week that when they are faced with a tough opponent, they step up and shut down the opposition.

Final Score Prediction: Grand View University 28 Cumberlands 17

Thanks again to everyone for a great season of NAIA College football. From the athletes, to the coaches, to everyone else involved, I truly believe this is the greatest level of college football. The commitment to be involved at this level is second to none.

As for Rome, Ga., I am going to miss coming to this community every year to watch the NAIA Football National Title. The people I have met are some of the most genuine I have ever been around. They’ve welcome fans into their town every year with open arms and allowed us to be the merriest group of college football fans in the country. Thanks to everyone from Rome involved in making the championship such a great event year after year. A personal thanks to people like Bill Petersen, Bob Berry, Ann Hortman, Rachel Rogers, Matt Green, Jeremy Bruce and my guy JT from the Old Havana Cigar Shop. There are countless others that have contributed to the success of the championship game in Rome, Ga., so please don’t be offended if you were left off the list. It goes without saying that Rome, Ga. is the definition of Southern Hospitality and one of the most special places you could ever visit in the country.

Saturday cannot come soon enough. Here’s to looking forward to seeing everyone in Georgia for the NAIA Football National Championship!

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